Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Haves and Have-nots


Two news stories caught my attention recently. They may at first seem completely unrelated, but both say something about the troubling place western society finds itself. The first came out of the US state of Oregon, where the state government runs a lottery where the winners get free health insurance. To Canadians this may sound like a joke, but it’s not. It is no myth that millions of Americans – typically the working poor – have no health insurance. You break a leg and you have no insurance, you need to pay the doctor or hospital to set it, just as you must pay a mechanic to fix a broken wheel on your car. The article gave examples such as one woman, a working mother, broke her ankle in several places, but the hospital would not perform the operation she required because she had no insurance and no savings to pay for it. She is now disabled and no longer able to work. We may ask ourselves, what lunatic sort of society would allow such a thing to happen, but it happens every day not only in the US, but in many, many other countries around the world. It is appalling that it happens in the US, a nation that could and should have universal basic health insurance, and shows remarkable short-sightedness. The unfortunate reality is that those with the most influence on the US political system – the upper middle class, corporate executives, senior citizens and organized labour – have health insurance and/or the financial savings to weather a medical emergency. It is not in their collective interest to change the system. And so access to affordable medical care has becomes a clear distinction between those who have and those who have not.*

The second story concerns a European court decision regarding the distinction between sick leave and vacation leave. A group of Spanish department store employees argued before the courts that, if you get sick while on paid holidays from your employer, you should be allowed to claim those as sick days, and thereby save your annual leave days for later use. The court agreed. Let’s put this into context. Say you take a week of paid vacation from your job and fly to the Caribbean and stay at an all-inclusive resort. Your first day you drink too much alcohol and maybe eat some bad shellfish, and you wind up sick for the next five days (such things never happen right?). When you return to the office the next Monday, you ask to convert your vacation days to sick days retroactively and tell your employer you would like to use your vacation days again next month, Under European law your employer would have no choice but allow you to do so. This, too, strikes me as lunacy. European workers enjoy the most generous annual leave and sick leave benefits anywhere. Full-time employees in Europe typically enjoy anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks of annual paid leave. European labour laws make it exceedingly difficult for employers to rid themselves of problem employees, so what has happened in recent years is that private sector employers increasingly avoid hiring people altogether or, where they must, hire only on part-time and casual bases so as to avoid incurring the cost of benefits.

It particularly caught my eye that the appellants in this court case were Spanish workers. Spain presently has an official unemployment rate of around 25%, and for young people it is much, much higher. Its banking system is a mess, it went through a painful housing bubble that saw many people take on enormous debt and lose their houses simultaneously. People who have decent full-time jobs in Spain have the luxury of going to court to press claims for even more holiday leave, whilst a growing chunk of Spanish society finds itself financially under water. In this case, the difference between have and have-not is created by labour laws that do not encourage job creation. Fortunately, most Spaniards do have access to basic health care; it will be increasingly, as chronic unemployment and poverty are well-known to generate adverse health outcomes.

What I take from these 2 tales of haves and have-nots is that there must be some happy medium in between the “I got mine/look out for yourself” political-economic system of the US and the “so long as you’re in the club, we’ll look after you” social welfare economy that reigns in many European nations. Canada currently falls somewhere between these 2 extremes, but whether or not we’re at that happy medium spot is an open question. The blossoming of student-led protests in Quebec suggest , at least in that province, we’re not; similarly, recent reports of poverty and gang violence amidst the newfound wealth being created in the tar sands boom town of Fort McMurray. We need to reach that happy medium quickly, because unless we are living in a socio-economically just society, it is hard to get people to pay attention to other pressing issues, like environmental degradation and change, that are even more challenging.

*When he first took office, President Obama took the political decision that he could not win a battle to replace the existing system with a universal one such as we have in Canada, and instead bolted a convoluted hybrid public-private system onto the existing system. This change would not extend health insurance to every American, but would shrink the number of uninsured to a small few. His system has been challenged by right-wing conservative interests, and is now before the US Supreme Court, with a decision imminent.  

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